TACOMA — For more than 100 years — ever since the Klondike Gold Rush secured Seattle’s role as the dominant city on Puget Sound in 1897 — this blue-collar town to the south has been the underdog.
Until lately, all the recent high-tech cash and glory had been concentrated in the Seattle area as well.
Over the years, Tacoma was best known for the sulfurous odor generated by its pulp-mill plants. And even that distinction is pretty much gone; there is just one mill left now that big timber’s heyday has passed, and the "aroma of Tacoma" has long since been reduced by filters.
But destiny finally may have arrived for the City of Destiny — a boastful moniker coined in the 1880s that recently had been considered a cruel joke.
With Seattle choking on its own success 30 miles to the north — high real estate prices, some of the worst traffic in the nation and downtown development that threatens to overwhelm the city’s character and obscure its world-class views — people and businesses are coming to Tacoma.
"I tell people that everyone wants to live and work in Tacoma — they just don’t know it yet," said Eric Cederstrand, the city’s self-appointed head cheerleader and a commercial real estate broker.
Actually, lots of them do know it. Thousands of Seattle workers commute daily from Tacoma, where housing prices are still within reach.
In time, the pace may pick up in the other direction.
More than 100 new companies have settled here in the past two years, drawn by the scale, the real estate market, helpful local government, proximity to Seattle and city-owned utility Tacoma Power’s $100 million high-speed telecommunications network.
"This city has a vision and a mission. They’re reinventing the city around the business space and what I would call e-business," said Karen Worstell, vice president of information security for Menlo Park, Calif.-based Atomic Tangerine, a consulting firm. She opened the company office here in August.
"I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven," Worstell said. "It’s the same fast-paced company, the same exciting work," but at the end of the day, "I drive 18 miles to my house and sit on the deck on the water and look at the Milky Way."
Tacoma, with a population of 187,000 vs. 540,000 in Seattle, has commercial real-estate prices that average about half of Seattle’s. As for housing, the average single-family home price in Seattle was $288,000 in September, up from $223,000 a year ago. In Tacoma, the price this fall averages $206,000 — up from $144,000 a year ago.
The turnaround for Tacoma came after 15 years of struggling with complicated Indian land claims, street crime, two waterfront Superfund sites and a decaying downtown core.
Some of the biggest skeptics about Tacoma’s prospects are longtime Tacomans.
"There have been so many fits and starts over the last couple of decades," said Rob Grenley, who runs a microchip technology business. But he also conceded, "Ten years ago, downtown Tacoma was not a place you’d want to come home to. It was a scary place to be."
At the local office of Advanced Telcom Group, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based telecommunications company, general manager Bruce Green recalled his horror on arrival at his new office here in May 1999 — a ruin of a building in a blighted downtown block with negligible foot traffic.
But the neighborhood has come alive over the past year and a half, he said.
He considers Tacoma unique in offering an airport, a seaport, a railport and a cyberport.
No other U.S. city "has the upside potential that Tacoma has," Green said. "It’s like Chicago at the turn of the century."
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